Search the Collection

Song of the Wood Thrush

Charles Ephraim Burchfield (American, 1893–1967)


Medium watercolor on cardboard Measurements H: 22 x W: 28 in. (55.88 x 71.12 cm) Credit Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. James H. Beal Accession Number 93.189.11 Location Not on View


Charles Burchfield's career as a watercolorist spanned nearly 50 years. This is an example of his later work, one that explores two of his favorite themes—birds and the forest. The artist's vibrant use of color and the pattern of shimmering trees and reflections are so powerfully suggestive, we can almost hear the bird's singing.

Artist Bio

Charles Burchfield always resented being linked with the chauvinist views of regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry, whose work dominated art criticism in the 1930s. In a letter to his dealer, Frank Rehn, Burchfield declared : "I am not an Ohio, or a western New York artist, but an American artist—or I should say an artist who happens to be born, living, painting in America. If I paint for an audience, it is to anyone, anywhere who happens to be spiritually akin to me. 'Regionalism'—It makes me sick."

Nonetheless, Burchfield's life and art were centered closely on a particular region of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York state. Aside from a few unhappy months in New York City, and a stint in the army that took him to North Carolina, Burchfield never left these areas for extended periods. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, and educated at the Cleveland School of Art, Burchfield settled first in Salem, Ohio, where he supported himself as an accountant, and later moved to Buffalo, where he worked as a wallpaper designer until he quit in 1929 to paint full time. Speaking of the subject matter of his art, Burchfield once wrote: "I will always be an inlander in spirit. The ocean does not move my imagination. Without discounting its awe-inspiring grandeur, it is not for me, and surely it has a worthy rival in a hay or wheat field on a bright windy day."

As an art student, Burchfield loathed figure drawing but excelled in design. From exposure to Art Nouveau he absorbed a love of curvilinear form, a sense of strong design and flat pattern, and a fascination with the principles of natural growth.

Primarily a nature painter, Burchfield celebrated in his art the beauty of field and forest in daylight and moonlight, in calm and storm, and in the passing of the seasons. Man remains a shadowy presence in Burchfield's work but is witnessed in his handiwork, often in decaying farmhouses, industrial buildings, old machinery, abandoned mines, and other objects that reveal the tragic wear and tear of existence.

Never comfortable with oil paint, Burchfield worked almost exclusively in watercolor, laying on colors in broad strokes with a heavy bluntness. Toward the end of his career he tended increasingly to piece sheets of paper together to give his designs monumental scale.

Burchfield exhibited frequently at the Carnegie International, where he won second prize in 1936, and he was honored with a one-man exhibition at Carnegie Institute in 1938. In Mrs. James H. Beal of Pittsburgh he found a firm supporter. Burchfield's letters to her, now in the Archives of American Art, constitute a primary document of the artist's aspirations and struggles.